NFL Preview - Minnesota (6-7) at Detroit (9-4)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The dismal performance of the NFC South this season means a very good football team will not be participating in the conference playoffs.
The Detroit Lions are intent on making sure that good team isn't them.
The Lions will try to keep on the heels of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North against an improving Minnesota Vikings team beginning to blossom under rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
The Lions enter Week 15 at 9-4, one-game behind the Packers in the division and tied with three other teams (Philadelphia, Dallas and Seattle) for the second best mark in the conference.
One of those teams won't be making the postseason because the winner of the NFC South (either 5-8 New Orleans and Atlanta or 4-8-1 Carolina) will have its ticket punched.
That makes every game ultra-important for the Lions, who will be searching for a rare season sweep of the Vikings after beating them in Minneapolis, 17-3, back on Oct. 12.
Detroit kept pace in the playoff race last weekend by taking care of business against hapless Tampa Bay, winning 34-17 behind Matthew Stafford, who had three touchdown passes, and Joique Bell, who scored twice.
Stafford went 26-for-34 for 311 yards with touchdown passes to Bell, Calvin Johnson and Joseph Fauria for the Lions, who have won two straight after consecutive road losses.
"I feel good, I feel confident in what we are doing," said Stafford. "The guys on offense are feeling pretty confident in what we've been doing here lately, and the guys up front are keeping me clean most of the time."
Johnson finished the game with eight catches for 158 yards, while Bell had 18 carries for 83 yards and a rushing touchdown while adding five catches for 50 yards for Detroit.
"Our guys certainly played a good team game today," said Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell. "It certainly wasn't perfect, they never are. Our offense was controlled and we ran the ball better than pretty much any game this year."
The Vikings, meanwhile, have been playing better recently behind Bridgewater, who is 4-2 in his last six starts with a passer rating of 91.0 in those games. Only the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans' Drew Brees and Atlanta's Matt Ryan have performed better among NFC quarterbacks over that span.
Last weekend Jarius Wright turned a quick Bridgewater smoke screen into a winning 87-yard touchdown in overtime, lifting Minnesota over the New York Jets, 30-24.
"I knew it was going to be a touchdown," said Bridgewater after seeing Wright run past the last defender. "I knew once we got that play set up, it was up to Jarius to do the rest."
Bridgewater completed 19-of-27 passes for 309 yards and a pair of touchdowns with an interception to lead the Vikings to their second straight win.
Wright finished with 123 yards on four catches, and Charles Johnson also scored with four catches for 103 yards.
"We've seen nothing but flashes from him since he arrived here," said Bridgewater about Johnson, who was plucked off Cleveland's practice squad.
Matt Asiata led Minnesota with 54 rushing yards and linebacker Gerald Hodges returned an interception for a touchdown for the first score of the game.
The Vikings lead the all-time series by a significant 69-35-2 margin but the Lions have won two of three, including the win in October.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Lions have been known for late-season collapses, losing six of their final seven games a year ago and dropping nine straight in the month of December before disposing of the Bucs last weekend.
Things have changed under first-year coach Caldwell.
"It's a new day. He said it from the beginning, coach Caldwell, put it on Caldwell," veteran center Dominic Raiola said. "We keeping doing it every week and it's getting fun around here. The more we just worry about what's going on right now, handle the day, the better off we're going to be."
Stafford has been making it especially fun over the past two weeks against Chicago and Tampa, completing 60-of-79 passes for 701 yards with five TDs and no interceptions. His hot streak coincides with the health of the All-World Johnson, who has caught 19 passes for 304 yards and three TDs in those two games.
"We've definitely found a rhythm," Johnson said. "I'm feeling pretty good ... the best I've felt in a little while."
Stafford still has some demons to exercise, however. He threw just eight TD passes and had 12 picks with a dismal 70.0 passer rating in Detroit's nine- game Christmas time swoon before righting the ship a bit against Tampa Bay.
"I feel good. I feel confident in what we're doing," Stafford said. "The guys are catching the ball, which is always great."
The Vikings figure to be much tougher than the Bears and Bucs, though, especially on defense where Mike Zimmer has put together a unit that can give up some yardage but has two elite playmakers in right end Everson Griffen, who is second in the NFC with 12 sacks, and safety Harrison Smith, the only player in the NFL with at least three sacks and three interceptions.
Chicago is 30th against the pass and the Buccaneers are 24th while Minnesota is sixth, allowing just 220.8 passing yards a game, limiting Stafford to 185 yards in the first matchup between the two teams.
The other aspect for the Lions which isn't new or at least not new enough is discipline. Long regarded as one of the NFL's dumbest teams under previous coaching regimes, Detroit is still committing far too many penalties.
"I am more interested in winning. But I know one thing: If you have too many (penalties), they lead to problems, they lead to deficiencies, they lead to losses," Caldwell said. "That is an area we have to get straightened away."
The Vikings have something in Bridgewater, who brings a rare sense of calm to the pocket you don't often see from young quarterbacks. The former Louisville star seems to have the innate feel to make good decisions and is very accurate in the short to mid-range areas.
"This franchise is Teddy's. I know that was a good headline for you," Zimmer said. "That's what he needs to do. He needs to take it over. This is his team now."
The deep ball has been a problem but even that seems to be improving thanks to the emergence of Johnson, a 6-foot-2 rangy receiver with tremendous straight- line speed and rare leaping ability, who has been creating tremendous separation.
"(Johnson is) a great route runner. He's a guy who's very patient," Bridgewater said.
The Lions defense, which allows an NFL-low 17.2 points per game, forced Bridgewater into his worst start as a pro back in October, intercepting him three times.
That's an issue because Minnesota will likely be without three starters on its offensive line. Right tackle Phil Loadholt and right guard Brandon Fusco are done for the season with torn pecs, while left guard Charlie Johnson will likely miss the game with a sprained ankle.
Despite trailing the Packers, the Lions control their own destiny because they are 3-0 in the division and beat Green Bay in the Motor City back in September. The Lions close the regular season with three straight NFC North matchups -- against the Vikings and at Chicago before a Week 17 matchup at Green Bay, where they have dropped 22 straight.
There is no room for error for the Lions especially over the next two weeks and Minnesota's offensive line troubles should be enough to slant things toward Detroit.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Lions 24, Vikings 20
12/14 09:36:11 ET